Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic struggle to secure voting rights for all citizens is the part of his legacy that comes to mind most often when we remember his impact on our lives today.
This remembrance is appropriate because it reflects on his greatest success — one that we see reflected in our own communities here in Pinellas County. Challenges to voter registration and voting access have been rigorously confronted, resulting in record high participation by minorities in our elections.
For me, the part of the King legacy that should demand far greater attention is that associated with economic justice, specifically employment and career preparation. At the time of King's tragic assassination he was devoting his primary energies to poverty, jobs and economic justice. He urged his followers not to rest, that the American Dream is much more than overcoming hideous segregation, and it only just begins with the right to vote. The complete American Dream is one of self-fulfillment, of dignity. He said:
"Dignity is corroded by poverty, no matter how poetically we invest the humble with simple graces and charm. No worker can maintain his morale or sustain his spirit if in the marketplace his capacities are declared to be worthless to society."
If the challenge to employment and economic security was hard some 35 years ago, it is harder today — made so by globalization and a wired world. The premium today is education and training: Unskilled employment runs like water to the lowest points anywhere in the world.
Our economic recovery in the state and nation reflects a frustrating slow growth in opportunities for employment. This sluggishness falls disproportionately on our fellow citizens with the lowest levels of preparation, experience and education. And the sad reality is that those three descriptors are too often the areas of greatest need among our African-American, Hispanic and youth populations. Today in Pinellas County, our unemployment rate is 7.8 percent. For African-Americans, the rate is almost double — 14.3 percent. For young African-Americans, the rate is more than 20 percent, according to the Pinellas County Urban League. Sadly, the actual rates are even greater because many of the unemployed have given up looking for a job.
Our college has a long history in educational preparation for associate and baccalaureate degrees. These portions of our mission are important components of a workforce strategy, but they leave behind the opportunity to help thousands of citizens find productive employment without committing years for study or having to borrow thousands of dollars.
We must refocus on urgent, timely and effective activities to put people to work. At St. Petersburg College we're proceeding on a number of paths that we expect will bring renewed hope to those who might be experiencing the corrosion of dignity, as Dr. King so rightly spoke of.
First, we are expanding the number of short-term training programs that lead to certificates recognized by industry and employers. Our newly opened Center for Collaborative Technologies gives us a much stronger base in manufacturing-related training, an area where a large number of jobs exist in Pinellas and surrounding counties. We also are seeking to expand into areas where jobs exist but where training has been lacking — entry-level positions in health care, information and computer technology, and public safety. These areas have nationally recognized certifications that employers demand as a qualification for jobs that exist.
Second, St. Petersburg College continues to expand our Learn to Earn program, whose short-term courses and training lead to skills fundamental to getting hired in today's market. These include work in word processing, spreadsheets, databases, project management, graphic design, manufacturing and health care.
Most important, we are expanding student support and will award financial aid for a number of these certificate programs. We want to be proactive in the certificate arena as a logical extension of our existing workforce mission. To be effective in this venture, we'll need to be attuned to the dignity of the worker and less concerned with credit hours and degrees.
We join today with the inspiring work of Dr. King, who at the end of a particularly challenging day was asked if he had lost heart. He told his questioner — and he tells us today — that no, he hadn't lost heart:
"I know my place! I stand in the sunlight of opportunity."
Bill Law is president of St. Petersburg College.